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From the World to Lynn: Stories of Immigration

“Can you hear it?” I asked, looking at Andrea Patiño as she listened to her exhibit.

She focused a little bit, narrowing her eyes at the encased iPad in front of her.

“Yeah…but it’s really quiet.” She took the headphones off and set them back down. “Okay. That’s a good thing to know.”

I waited a little bit, not wanting to distract her from making a mental note of a possible improvement in her exhibit. Her care and attention to detail were apparent.

“Okay. Anyway!” she said, laughing.

We were walking through From the World to Lynn: Stories of Immigration, a new multi-media exhibit at the Center for Documentary Studies created by Patiño based on her experiences with immigrants in the Massachusetts city of Lynn. It chronicles the stories of five immigrants and refugees in the city. Earlier that week, we had chatted on the phone for some time as she gave me a description of her work and the exhibit. Now, we were both walking through the exhibit for the first time.

Patiño, one of the Center’s Lewis Hine Fellows, graduated from Duke in 2012 and was in Lynn for about 10 months as part of her work for the fellowship. As a Hine Fellow, she was paired up with the non-profit Raw Art Works in Lynn. She also worked on an independent project, which became From the World to Lynn.

“I was always interested in immigration,” she explained over the phone. “As an immigrant myself, it’s been something that I was always fascinated by. I became very interested in that idea and reached out to a few resettlement agencies and stated interviewing people.”

The exhibit, which spans two floors at the Center, contains stark, black and white portraits mounted on the walls, audio listening stations and iPad stations to look at the interactive website.

At one point, I asked Patiño why she chose such an array of mediums to tell her story.

“I wanted to have the portraits displayed with audio in a way that you could look at the person and hear that person talking," she explained. "I recorded audio because I wanted them to be the ones that were telling the story."

And, honestly, the exhibit feels very much like how she described it over the phone. Deeply personal, close-up shots greet visitors to the exhibit. Each of the five people that Patiño interviewed has their own little section of the exhibit. In the area for Antonio, an immigrant from El Salvador that entered the country as an unaccompanied minor, emotionally charged pictures show him at work in a taqueria. Even though the photos are in black and white, or perhaps because they are in black and white, the emotion within each photo is vivid and powerful.

Iraqi refugees huddled together in an office seem to say so much more when paired with the story of a mother whose son, a translator for the coalition forces in Iraq, was murdered. The story of the gently smiling man becomes more powerful when he speaks of his grandmother as his best friend, even though he was never able to meet her in person.

While I tried to soak in all of the details on display, Patiño seemed to be everywhere at once, even while we were talking. She described the pictures to me as her eyes swept over her work. After she recalled an Iraqi woman whose husband and three kids were killed, prompting her to leave the country, she leaned back against the wall.

“A lot of the Iraqi stories were really hard,” she said quietly.

I paused, not knowing what to say.

“You’re there, and you’re empathetic, of course,” she continued. “But there’s just no way you will ever understand some of the pain that some of these stories carry.”

In that moment, I realized how much Patiño has carried with her as she tells these intensely moving and tragic stories. Somehow, her optimism shines through. She speaks dearly and lovingly of these immigrants and refugees, expressing hope for their futures and describing how much joy they brought to their communities.

Patiño also told the story of Lynn. Among the 90,000 citizens of Lynn, almost 30% are foreign-born. A city that used to be very important for shoe-manufacturing, it declined in population after World War II. Now, General Electric and a few shoe-manufacturing companies still reside in the town. For the most part, though, it has remained a “refugee hub,” where many immigrants and refugees stop on their way into the United States. Pairing this big-picture view of the city with the deeply personal stories of five immigrants and refugees gives viewers to the exhibit two powerful, contrasting experiences.

Although it is clear that Patiño still wants to tidy up a few things in the exhibit, it seemed like a very complete and compelling story to me. As I put on my coat, I asked her if she wishes she could have done anything differently.

“I wish I could have had more stories featured. More material,” she replied.

I mention that it’s always easy to want more time. She shrugs.

“Yeah. But I think by the time I figured out what I wanted more or less, or at least the concept, I would have liked more time.”

Patiño smiled as she shook my hand. I walked to the door, expecting to see her packing up too, but she turned back to the exhibit. When she saw me looking, she smiled again.

“I’ll spend a little bit more time here.”

The online portion of the exhibit can be viewed online at http://stories-of-lynn.com/

Andrea Patiño’s personal website can be found at http://www.andreapatino.com/

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